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xV: Evaluating Steve Bruce’s tactics in the Fulham loss

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It was always going to be a tough ask for Villa on Saturday at Craven Cottage, but Steve Bruce made some fine decisions and some puzzling ones in the defeat.

AFC Telford United v Aston Villa: Pre-Season Friendly
TELFORD, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce looks on during the Pre-Season Friendly between AFC Telford United and Aston Villa at New Bucks Head Stadium on July 12, 2017 in Telford, England.
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Hey friends! Welcome back to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-focused look at Villa’s results and play. Villa lost for the first time in a long time Saturday, and while it wasn’t great, it was always going to be tough for them to get a result without Albert Adomah and Jack Grealish.

I want to start by defending Steve Bruce a bit

I’ve seen the idea that Bruce’s team selection was too negative, or that he should have made like-for-like substitutions, and that’s not necessarily a view I can get behind.

Bruce only made two changes to the Villa squad — bringing in Birkir Bjarnason and Axel Tuanzebe for the injured Adomah and Grealish — and on the surface, yep, they absolutely feel more negative than they perhaps should be. But in reality, there wasn’t a huge formation switch, at the least, that was brought about by the change in personnel.

The idea that Bjarnason is a “defensive” player didn’t exist a month ago, until he suddenly started looking good as a defensive midfielder. But he is, by trade, a wide/central midfielder who has a good bit of experience in the attacking midfield role, and he’s a player who’s been in form recently. While this wasn’t a perfect like-for-like change, neither of Bruce’s other options — Henri Lansbury and Callum O’Hare — are perfect in their own right.

And don’t think of the Tuanzebe for Adomah move as the swap — think of it instead as a series of moves, with Robert Snodgrass sliding over to left wing, Ahmed Elmohamady replacing Adomah on the other wing, then Tuanzebe coming in to replace Elmohamady. Now we look at it as an Elmohamady for Adomah swap, and it’s hard to argue that move in and of itself (when forced by injury) is particularly defensive.

In my eyes, Villa’s more defensive approach Saturday wasn’t a byproduct of Steve Bruce’s changes, but more a byproduct of the fact that Villa’s attack was, well, just populated by less talented players. Grealish is a better No. 10 than Bjarnason; Adomah is a better left winger than Snodgrass, who himself is a better right winger than Elmohamady. To argue otherwise, really — that Villa should have been able to attack as well, or close to as well, without Adomah and Grealish as they do with him — is to downplay those two players’ talent levels.

Adomah and Grealish are special players, and suggesting that anyone should be able to come off the Villa bench and do a similar job is shortchanging these guys. We think they’re two of the five or 10 best players in this division for good reason, and it’s only natural that the attack is going to suffer without them.

And to be fair, Villa didn’t set up to be as attacking as in recent matches, and I really think there’s one good reason for that: Fulham, playing at home, are a better football team, and a better attacking team, than Villa without Adomah and Grealish. I don’t really think it’s close either.

I’ve written all season about how I want Bruce to play expansive, attacking football because, generally, Villa have the more talented attacking players. I think that statement is true against 21 of the 23 other teams in the Championship. Fulham are one of the outstanding two, Wolves the other — and that’s forgetting that Villa are without Adomah and Grealish. For once, Villa didn’t have the most talented attacking player on the pitch; yesterday, it was Ryan Sessegnon (though Tuanzebe actually did a hell of a job with him, as far as criticizing Bruce’s changes are concerned).

Setting up to counterattack and absorb pressure, in my opinion, was a pragmatic set of tactics forced by Villa’s injury position (especially given André Green is also hurt again), and in the first half, it worked like a charm: Fulham had no shots on target (though neither did Villa) as it looked like the Claret and Blues were in with a real chance to nick three points on the counter. It didn’t work and so it goes, but just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. I think Fulham win the majority of open matches, and it’s easy to forget that until Johnstone’s error, Villa were one good attack away from leveling the match.

This isn’t to say that I would’ve done the same thing Bruce did — I would have rather rolled with Lansbury instead of Bjarnason — but I think it was a logical approach.

I also want to be critical of Steve Bruce

In truth, the injury-forced change that sent Villa’s performance Saturday to hell Saturday wasn’t the changes to the XI, it was the halftime substitution, with Josh Onomah on for the injured Elmohamady. Villa were barely in the match in the second half, and I can’t help but think the lack of a true second winger on the pitch was a contributing factor. I really like Onomah as a player, but he’s not a winger; I would have rather seen Bjarnason shifted wide and Onomah in a more box-to-box midfield role.

I also wish Bruce would’ve named at least one winger to the bench. This is one of the few things that’s been bothering me lately about Bruce’s management — his bench is often overloaded with players at one position, leaving key spots without a replacement in case of injury or a desire to change tactics. Keinan Davis eventually got into the game, but I would’ve rather seen O’Hare, who can play out wide, there instead, as Lewis Grabban was already on the bench as a striker. The same idea rings true with having Lansbury, Onomah and Glenn Whelan all on the bench — pick any two of them and you’ve got all the midfield positions covered. One of them easily could have been dropped to get O’Hare onto the bench.

Tuanzebe was really good

Sessegnon did get on the scoresheet early in the second half, but you could argue Tuanzebe wasn’t just the best Villan on the pitch Saturday, he was the best player on the pitch. The full debutant led all players in successful tackles (6), aerial duels won (8) and clearances (9). He had 86 touches, best on the Villa squad, and didn’t commit a foul. He had a great debut and showed himself really well.

Sam Johnstone cost Villa any shot at salvaging a point

Maybe there’s another world out there where Villa nick a late goal, it finishes 1-1, and we all would’ve gone home happy. Johnstone ended all hope of that by doing this:

Oh, boy. Villa had been largely fortunate to avoid stupid things in recent matches — you don’t win seven in a row otherwise — but this was really stupid and bad.

But at the end of the day, Johnstone has saved Villa a lot more points throughout the year than he did in this move, where Villa were already 1-0 down with 20 minutes to play. It’s fine, mistakes happen, and I’d rather them happen from a position like this than if Villa were 1-0 up with 20 minutes to play.

Everything is relative, so don’t ask me how much this result hurts

At least not until May.

I don’t know how many points Villa will need to finish second. Everyone around them could sputter down the stretch, and 83 or 84 points could be all it takes. Cardiff City could go on a tear here over the rest of the season, and Villa would need to win 92 or 93 to go up. If the number is lower, it makes this result easier to digest — away to Fulham was the second-most difficult fixture Villa had left, so if they take care of business in the easier contests, everything will be fine.